Power Rack Vs Smith Machine: Which Is Better For Your Home Gym?


Building a home gym can be intimidating. There are so many pieces of equipment you need, but often limited budget or space to fit it all in. So which is better out of the power rack or a Smith machine?

The power rack is the better choice if you have the space. It has been proven to be better at activating muscle and means you can do a wider range of different exercises. This means it’s the prime choice if you have the room for it.

We’ll look at the pros and cons of Smith machines and power racks. I’ll show you the reasons why the power rack gives more variability and flexibility to your workouts while the Smith machine doesn’t have quite as many different applications.


Features Of A Smith Machine

A Smith machine is designed for controlled barbell strength training.  The basic construction is that it has essentially a barbell that is fixed within steel rails. These rails only allow vertical or near-vertical movement.

The bar can move up and down along a vertical track. Rolling the bar is used to activate the safety locks that line the rails.

Originally spotted in a gym in the 1950s, the basic design was attributed to Jack LaLanne. He came up with the idea to enable people in his gym to lift heavy weights with the assistance of a guided rail system.

Later the design was improved upon by others including Rudy Smith. According to author Jonathan Black, early versions of what would become the Smith Machine started appearing in gyms in Los Angeles.

Some newer versions allow for more horizontal movement but the basic design is one of vertical movement.

The Smith machine can be used for several types of exercises but is mainly used for doing squats and variations of presses particularly the bench press and shoulder press.


Features Of A Power Rack

Power racks are generally composed of four upright metal pillars secured to the floor, wall or ceiling. Also known as power cages or squat racks, they have horizontal safety bars that can be adjusted to varying heights. These safety bars can stop a weight from falling too far.

Power racks will also have adjustable catches or hooks to rest the barbell on. They will take any standard barbell such as the 45-pound type found in most gyms.

Due to the absence of rails, power racks have more versatility than Smith machines. The barbell does not have to follow a path and so is closer to free weights than the typical machines found in a gym.


What’s Good About A Smith Machine?

Safety is one of the biggest advantages of a Smith machine. The inbuilt safety locks are easy to engage and prevent the bar from falling on you. This also means you can work out alone without a spotter while performing heavy exercises.

A Smith machine’s barbell is stabilized as it is guided up and down due to the rails.  You don’t have to worry about balancing yourself and can devote all your attention to lifting the weight.

Versatility is another reason why the Smith machine is great for home gyms. The combination of the barbell with the inbuilt safety locks means it can be used for a huge range of exercises.

A Smith machine can be used to work every major muscle group. Squats will hit the legs including the quadriceps, calf raises can be done via putting a box or step down.

Hamstrings can be worked with many exercises as well as lunges being incorporated to further target the inner and outer leg muscles.

Rack pulls and deadlifts can be used to target the back and other parts of the posterior chain.

A bench can be wheeled in to allow all kinds of chest exercises including the bench press, incline or decline press. Variations of the shoulder press or military press also work well in a Smith machine.

The design of the Smith machine does not allow the barbell to swing wildly. This means that when doing exercises, you move properly and maintain good form. This will help target the muscle groups better as well as reduce risk of injury.

Not every exercise needs to be functional or directly related to a strength sport to be good for your health. The fixed range of motion that comes with a Smith machine will force you to target a muscle much more directly by taking stabilization out.

Finally overloading is much easier to achieve with a Smith machine. Taking out the need to focus on balance and stabilization means you can pack on more weight.

These features mean the Smith machine is suited for both beginners and experienced gym goers. Unlike specialized workout machines, a Smith machine will help you cover a lot of bases for many workouts.

People who have been working out for some years can still get a lot out of a Smith machine. For certain exercises like calf raises, it’s the preferred way to do the exercise if you don’t have a specialty calf raise machine.

There are certain exercises that work really well in a Smith machine.

Bench press in the Smith machine can allow much heavier weight to be used as opposed to a power rack. This has been shown to be particularly good for tricep development and can be easier on your elbow joints.

Lunges or split squats generally work much better in a Smith machine than a power rack. Having to do a lunge requires balancing on one leg and being able to lean into the guiding rails helps tremendously.

Shrugs can be done in many different ways but the Smith machine versions have some interesting benefits. Particularly the ‘behind-the-back shrugs’ variation allows you to move further away from the bar and get better isolation of the trapezoids.


What’s Good About A Power Rack?

Unlike a Smith machine, there are no mechanical movement parts. This can mean less chance for something to malfunction and so power racks are unlikely to break.

Technically there is differentiation between a power rack and a squat rack. While the former consists of 4 vertical posts and at least 2 horizontal bars, a squat rack only has 2 vertical posts.

Power racks are thought to be better for training outcomes as opposed to a Smith machine. The rails that contribute to the Smith machine’s safety will mean that you’re not being forced to control the weight as much.

The additional 2 posts means that power racks can usually hold a lot more weight than a standard squat rack.

A power rack will thus give a better overall utilization of the body’s muscles, particularly the stabilizer muscles. Research has shown that over 40% more muscle activation was detected when using free weights such as in a power rack as opposed to using the Smith machine.

The top exercises with a power rack are generally the squat, shoulder press and inverted rows.

Squats in a power rack are generally thought of superior to the Smith machine version. Not being able to rely on the rails means you work a variety of other muscles to keep yourself upright and balanced.

The shoulder press or overhead press is best performed in a power rack. You can set the barbell to the rest position at about your clavicle level and practice strict form with the safety bars being able to allow a failed repetition easily.

Inverted rows are similar to pull ups. Put a barbell in the power rack and then pull your body up to it and touch your chest on the barbell. This can be done in Smith machines as well but sometimes the movement can cause the bar to become unlocked if the barbell rotates.


Which Is The Best For My Home Gym?

The two pieces of equipment are very similar. Smith machines have the advantage in that they’re likely to be a lot more compact than a power rack. This means that in cramped spaces, particularly with low ceilings, a power rack may have some issues fitting in.

A standard power rack will take up a fairly large space. Generally you can expect the dimensions to be 8′ long by 5′ wide, and you will need at least an 8′ high ceiling as well.

The safety arms for a power rack must be adjusted and used properly. Before doing an exercise, you must double check the heights of the safety bars and whether they will catch the barbell and prevent injury.

Unlike a Smith machine, it’s possible to drop the barbell and have it miss the safety arms. You also cannot secure the bar halfway through an exercise on a power rack by engaging the safeties on the rails.

Both pieces of equipment can come with several attachments.  As a default most will have chin-up bars and you’re also likely to get weight plate storage on the sides. Several other options like dip stands, various cable attachments, and other add-ons will allow many variations.

In the end you need to understand the purpose of your training when deciding between power racks or Smith machines. If you want to do a variety of strength training or muscle building and have a limited budget, the power rack would be the better choice.

It’s important to understand when considering the pricing that a power rack will generally only come with the rack itself. You’ll need to find the add-ons like barbells, weight sets, benches, and attachments to get the full range of exercises from it.


How Much Does A Power Rack Cost?

Power racks will vary in the price due to several factors such as material, style, and add-ons. As they have to be able to take heavy weights landing on them, they are often made out of steel or 11 gauge steel.

Large sections of steel will be heavy which will increase shipping and transportation costs. To get to their destination, their weight will be the main factor in shipping costs. Of course, these freight costs are passed on in the price to the end consumer.

Not only is steel heavy, but it’s expensive to manufacture. Power racks are large and require large lengths of this finished steel that require specialty factories, further pushing up the price.

Not only will this capital investment itself but also the logistics of getting those raw materials to the production line will increase costs as well.

Supply and demand works against you when trying to set up your home gym. Power racks are never really sold in huge volumes which means their marginal cost is likely to be high as the supplier can’t benefit from economies of scale.

Power racks are also going to be extremely sturdy and long lasting due to being made out of metal. Particularly when compared to the Smith machine, there is not a lot to go wrong with a power rack.

This means that very few people or businesses need to repurchase power racks because their old ones became useless or brokedown.

However on the other side, the demand for workout equipment only ever seems to go up. The long term growth in the workout and fitness industry means more and more people are purchasing home gym workout equipment, pushing the prices up.

Different varieties of the power rack can see the price doubling or more. For example However, more expensive weight sets or products aimed at businesses will have different features. Power racks meant for competition or commercial gyms will be of a higher quality.

For an entry level power rack, you’re probably looking at somewhere around $200 as a minimum. For brand new equipment and fancier options, the price will easily push over $1000 or $2000 plus.

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